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Behaviour Change Strategies

Dr. Maitreyi Raman, MD, MSc, FRCPC

Written by: Dr. Maitreyi Raman, MD, MSc, FRCPC

Updated: November 29th, 2022

Your thoughts affect your feelings, how your body feels, and your behaviour.

Across all situations in our lives, your thoughts can determine your emotions, how your physical body feels, as well as your behaviours. How you feel and behave also influences how you think. Imagine a clock in your mind with your thoughts at 12 o’clock on the circle, your feelings and emotions at 3 o’clock, how your body feels at 6 o’clock, and your reactions or behaviours at 9 o’clock. The hand on the clock represents impact. Picture the hand on the clock starting at your thoughts and moving towards your feelings, body and behaviour, and then back up to your thoughts. Different from a regular clock, on this “thought clock” the hands move both clockwise and counter-clockwise.

The way self-efficacy influences our behaviour is a good example of this clock- and counter clockwise relationship. Self-efficacy is a term used to describe how confident you are in performing a behaviour successfully. Research suggests when you do something and think you did it well, your confidence goes up and you feel positively, thus you are more likely to do the behaviour again. The opposite is also true. When you don’t do something as planned or believe you have failed, your confidence can go down. As a result, you feel negatively, and you are less likely to do the behaviour again.

Think about the following situation.

You want to go for a walk every day at noon. When you start your week, you are full of confidence that you can do this. On your first walk, your stress level may go down, and you feel positive. Your body also feels good about the fact that you took a break from sitting. You think to yourself, “Look how easy this is! Why haven’t I done this before?” Your confidence goes up. The next day, your schedule is interrupted. Perhaps your boss calls and needs a work task done right away.

Perhaps your child forgets their lunch, and you have to deliver it to school. You miss your walk, and tiredness overcomes you at the end of the day. You now have to choose between two different thought patterns. The first thought pattern sounds like, “Once again, I did not meet the goal I set for myself. I am a failure. Why do I even try?

These thoughts erode your confidence and promote feelings of guilt, which increases your tiredness and makes it less likely you will go for a walk the next day. The second thought pattern sounds like, “I can be successful, even though it didn’t work today – tomorrow I am going to book a walk and talk with a friend to make sure I go”. These thoughts build confidence, produce feelings of pride, help lessen your fatigue, and increase the likelihood of successfully meeting your goal.

Throughout this article, I will refer to LyfeMD. LyfeMD is a mobile application designed by two gastroenterologists, as well as a registered dietitian and behaviour change professional. With this new mobile application, people with digestive diseases can access evidence-based therapies. LyfeMD includes programs designed to help you reframe negative and limiting thought patterns in the behaviour change tools section of the app, “Understanding my thoughts, feelings, and behaviours

Sounds simple, right? If that were the case, why do so many people struggle to do the things they think they should do? Mahatma Gandhi recognized this struggle when he said,

Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony. Our greatest ability as humans is not to change the world, but to change ourselves.

What kind of thoughts help or hurt us?

Thousands of research studies have examined how human beings change their behaviours. These studies identify some common strategies to help promote successful change. The majority of these targeted strategies can help you to change the way you think. You need to pick and choose what will work for you personally.

Core Values

Core values are your deepest beliefs that shape how you think, feel and act. Some examples of core values include physical health, attractiveness, family, and empathy. However, many of us aren’t really aware of what our core values are. The easiest way to identify your core values is to do a core value activity. A good core value activity is found at www.motivationalinterviewing.org and search “personal value cards”. During this activity, you will identify your top five core values. If you have the LyfeMD app you can also do the “Core value quiz” (Activity 4 in the behaviour change tools tab).

When you know your core values, you can take the behaviour you want to change and think about how your core value may influence your success. For example, maybe you value physical health and family, and your struggle with not being more physically active comes from the time it takes away from your family. For you to live in line with your values and be successful with the desired change, you decide to make plans to be physically active either with your family doing family activities, or when the rest of your family is busy doing other things. Knowing your values may help you be more successful with change. When you struggle with changing behaviour, thinking “I am doing this because I am living in line with what I truly value,” can help build success.


Thinking about the positive benefits of a behaviour as opposed to the negative also helps you change. Instead of believing your body will be sore after a workout, think of how energized you might feel, think about the strength your muscles gain, or connect it to a core value such as being able to play with your grandkids when you are older. Before starting any new behaviour, write down what you think are the benefits of the behaviour you want to implement. Then when you struggle to implement the new behaviour, go over this list again. Post this list where you can see it and remind yourself of how this behaviour connects to your core values. After you do the behaviour, take a minute to review the positive benefits and add more to your list. If you see the benefits of the behaviour you are much more likely to continue doing it.

Social Support

We need people in our lives that are healthy – not just physically healthy, but mentally, emotionally, and spiritually healthy as well. Are you able to find other people with shared values with whom you can be accountable and give you feedback on how you are doing? The LyfeMD app focuses on helping you to build a strong support system from others. Visit the ‘Getting support from others’ section to learn more.

Goal-setting, Planning, and Tracking

Change is easier when you set small goals, plan for difficult situations, and track your behaviour while getting some feedback.

Use this formula when setting goals:

  1. Keep your goals small. For example, if you eat no apples at all during the week, it is better for you to start with eating one apple a week instead of trying to eat an apple every day.
  2. Make your goals achievable and trackable. This takes planning. If you want to eat more apples, you need to plan to pick them up at the grocery store for the week. If you are going to walk, you need good walking shoes to protect your feet and your knees. Tracking whether or not you are meeting your goal can also help you make more successful behaviour changes.  
  3. Learn about the new behaviour. If you feel unsure about how to accomplish your goal, it won’t stick. For example, if you want to do strength training twice per week, but do not know how to perform the movements safely and hurt yourself, you won’t continue with it. Get help where you need it. This might be from a health professional to help you identify what changes will most impact your health. The LyfeMD app also provides you with nutrition, exercise and yoga and mindfulness programs designed to improve your health.
  4. Schedule it. Adding reminders to your calendar is an effective behaviour change tool. Booking time with others to help support your journey can also make it easier.
  5. Plan for failure. Failure has a price. Every time you try something and fail, your confidence goes down and you are less likely to keep trying. Planning for failure at the start can help you be more positive about yourself, feel better when you fail, and result in more successful behaviour change. An easy way to do this is to write down if/then statements. IF (this happens), THEN (this is what I am going to do). For example, “IF I don’t go for my scheduled walk, THEN I will walk on the treadmill while I watch TV”.

Negative thought patterns

Do you struggle with thoughts of not being good enough, fearing no one can love you, or feeling you are a failure? These are common types of thoughts that are most often not true. These thoughts can create negative emotions, affect our physical health, and make it difficult to change our behaviour. It is important to remember that thoughts are not facts. You have the power to choose new them! If you consistently struggle with negative thoughts and try to change them without success, you many need to seek professional help. The LyfeMD app also includes activities to help you change negative thought patterns and build happiness and peace into your life.

What can I do today to help “renew my mind”?

Turn away from old thought and behaviour patterns and make a new path. It is not enough to simply turn away – you want to create another path to follow in order to increase the chances of success. Creating another path helps build self-control because it provides you with other enjoyable options. It is tough to change if it feels too difficult, or it feels as if you are missing out.

Here is an example from a participant in one of our studies. This person had set a goal for themselves to avoid eating processed and fast food. When they finished work in the evening, they were starving and would stop for fast food on their way home. They tried a few things to help themselves, like packing some quick snacks to take to work but each time they drove by their favorite fast food outlet, it felt like it was pulling them in. They needed to turn away from this option and create a different path. First, they visualized themselves turning away from this path and identified all the reasons it felt hard (e.g., feelings of hunger, craving salty fries, social interaction). They then created a different path to follow by deciding to take an alternate way home, in addition to ensuring they had desirable and healthy choices available, and calling a friend to chat while en route.

Choose one helpful way to think today and put it into action. Successful change starts with just one small step.

Download your LyfeMD app today! Read more about it at the LyfeMD website, and download the app for iPhone or Android

It is available free of cost for a limited period of time. Please talk to your GI specialist to access it at no cost. Alternatively, please contract Dr. Raman at mkothand@ucalgary.ca for more information.

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